Park softball: Carrying the torch
This year's Park softball team will look to carry the torch for what is perhaps the most winning program in Park High School history.
However it won't be easy, as the Wolfpack graduated nine seniors in 2008 and will field only three starters from last season.
The Park softball program is the owner of 17 conference championships, 13 section titles and one state championship. Last year, the Wolfpack finished 19-4 overall, won the Suburban East Conference championship and was ranked No. 2 in the state entering playoffs.
In the playoffs, Park fell in consecutive games in the double elimination tournament -- first 3-0 to third seed and No. 3-ranked Bloomington Jefferson, then 9-6 to sixth-seeded Rosemount to end the season short of the section finals. Section 3AAA top seed and No. 1-ranked Eagan (22-2) went on to win its first state championship defeating Mankato West 14-1 in the Class 3A finals.
This year, Park will again be led by head coach Charlie Whitbred, who is in his 28th year at the reins of the Wolfpack softball team and who earned his 500th career victory last season.
"This is the least amount of returning players we've had for a long, long time," Whitbred said. "It's kind of fun in a way, because it's a lot of work and we'll be able to improve, but I just don't see us being 19-4 again."
The biggest holes the team will need to fill are the losses of all-state first baseman and pitcher Sam Hildebrandt and all-state catcher Elizabeth Murray.
Returning for Park this season is senior pitcher Ashley Kluever, who will man the most important position in softball. Park senior Lauryn Morris will also be back to lead the outfield, while third baseman Kelsey Waltz will be the cornerstone of the infield.
Kluever, Morris and Waltz were each all-conference players as juniors.
Kluever was 9-2 last season and had a streak of 14-straight games pitched without a loss, dating back to the 2006-07 season. Waltz batted .333 and Morris hit .391.
"A lot of it is going to rely on Ashley Kluever," Whitbred said. "More so than any other time, our pitching is going to have to be strong."
Morris and Waltz believe Kluever can help the team be competitive in every game this season.
"It's almost like a goalie in other sports or a quarterback," Morris said. "She's our quarterback. She's one of our leaders."
Both Morris and Waltz agreed with Whitbred's assessment of the team, but both believe the team will have a shot at some great things this year.
"These young girls have definitely shown us what they can do," Morris said. "We just need to bring it to the games now. I know when I was younger I was nervous. Once they lose some of their nerves, they'll be fine."
In conference play, three teams in the SEC -- Woodbury, Forest Lake and Mounds View, which finished third, fourth and fifth in last year's conference standings, respectively -- qualified for the state tournament. Whitbred also feels Hastings could be one of the front-runners, considering it returns its top pitcher, who was injured last season.
The favorite to win the section title will be the defending state champ, Eagan, which returns the top pitcher in the state in junior Sara Moulton.
Waltz felt the team shouldn't put too much pressure on itself to win as many games as it did last year and she believed if the team is lose and having a good time, it will be more successful.
"I just want to have a lot of fun," Waltz said. "If we do well it's great. But, only one team can get to state out of our section."
The action starts the second week of April. The Wolfpack hosts Forest Lake on Monday, April 6 and Cretin-Derham Hall on Wednesday, April 8.
Morris said the team just needs to work hard and take it game-by-game this season.
"You just have to put it all out on the field," Morris said. "If you win, great, if you loose, you have to put it all behind you and forget about it."
-- 2007 - 08: 19-4 overall; 14-2 Suburban East Conference (first place).
Key wins: Mounds View 8-0, 6-5; Stillwater 3-2, 5-2; Forest Lake 3-0, 7-5; Eastview 11-1, 13-5; Lakeville South 7-1.
Key losses: Woodbury 3-1, 2-1; Bloomington Jefferson 3-0; Rosemount 9-6.
-- 2008 - 09
Key returners: Ashley Kluever, sr. P; Lauryn Morris, sr. OF; Kelsey Waltz, sr. 3B; Kelsey Johnson, sr. 1B.
Key graduates: Sam Hildebrandt, sr. P; Elizabeth Murray, sr. C; Sarah Nohrenberg, sr. OF; Brittany Bollman, sr. SS; Angela Landgraf, sr. 3B.
Main competition (last year's record): SEC: Stillwater (18-6; 12-4 SEC), Woodbury (16-6; 12-4 SEC), Forest Lake (18-9; 9-7 SEC), Mounds View (18-9; 9-7 SEC), Hastings (15-11; 7-9 SEC). Section 3AAA: Eagan (22-2; 13-1 Lake), Bloomington Jefferson (19-4; 13-1 Lake), Burnsville (15-5; 11-3 Lake), Lakeville North (14-7; 9-5 Lake), Rosemount (14-9; 8-6 Lake).